It’s official: Walsh is in.
The entrance of Joe Walsh into the Republican Presidential primary race for 2020 may not seem like an important event. After all, Bill Weld has been “in the field” for months and most people probably didn’t even notice.
But Walsh’s entrance could be an extremely important event for the overall process of determining who’s in the Oval Office in 2021 and beyond for several reasons.
First, Walsh is a far-right tea party guy. He has serious and unchallengeable street cred among hardcore conservatives, giving him the ability to credibly challenge Mr. Trump from the Right on most issues. By contrast, Weld is pro-choice, signed gun-control bills into law as a governor, and endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. So a Walsh primary challenge is a horse of a very different color.
Second, Walsh is a popular radio show host and has a lot of media experience. He is also a veteran troll on Twitter and can happily exchange barbs with anyone, and then shout about it to tens of thousands of listeners.
Third, Walsh, according to his own statements, is coming at this race not necessarily with the goal of winning. He appears to be a realist with a specific agenda: to simply take Trump down. One gets the sense that he is so offended by Trump that he would feel the country is in better hands with anyone from the left. That starts the trolling battle at the point of ‘nothing to lose’, which is dangerous for Trump.
If you add all of this up — more cred with conservatives, experienced with media and tweet-trolling, and focused only on taking Trump down even if he goes down with him — this is a particularly nasty development for the Trump team.
What do you do about a problem like that?
If you try to discredit Walsh, it won’t matter because he isn’t trying to win. All you will be doing is shining a spotlight on him. We would guess their approach will be to simply try very hard to ignore Walsh. But that’s also dangerous because we would expect Walsh to start by making a clear case built of specific accusations. And Trump’s unwillingness to respond to them will serve to give them greater credibility.
From a historical perspective, high-profile primary challenges to sitting presidents running for a second term have been associated disproportionately with losses in the general election.
Ronald Reagan primaried Gerald Ford in 1976. Ford won the primary and then lost the general election to Jimmy Carter.
Ted Kennedy then went after Jimmy Carter in 1980, blowing it for Carter and putting Reagan in the White House.
Pat Buchanan primaried George H.W. Bush in 1992, who then lost in the general election to Bill Clinton.
Those are the only incumbent presidential election losses in the last 80 years. And every one of them was precipitated by a high-profile primary challenge to the incumbent. A strong primary challenge does two things: first, it divides support for the incumbent within the party, and second, it forces extra investment of time, energy, and money that could have been spent on taking down the challenger from the other side. It weakens the candidate before the main event.
And this may be especially true when the primary challenger is specifically aiming to do just that, rather than being saddled with the extra baggage of trying to win.
Hence, Trump’s chances of reelection may hinge on whether or not Joe Walsh is able to make his primary run “high-profile”, at least in terms of media impact.